Trump’s Green Card Ban: Nonsensical at Best, Dangerous at Worst

Updated: May 20


On April 22, the Trump administration moved one step closer to its goal of obliterating the U.S. immigration system: through yet another presidential proclamation targeted at foreigners, Trump banned the issuance of new green cards for 60 days for anyone outside the United States. The argument is that new green card holders present a “risk” and a “threat” to American workers and that in order to protect the U.S. economy, we must shut our doors to any new outsiders.


This is infuriating. This is dangerous. And it doesn’t even make sense. Here’s why:


The ban doesn’t restrict the issuance of temporary work visas.

In the 48 hours following his announcement of new immigration restriction, Trump’s ban rapidly contracted. On the evening of April 20, he tweeted that he was going to “temporarily suspend immigration into the United States.” By the next morning, “suspend immigration” had morphed into suspending new green cards and work visas. After the business community exploded in outrage, he backed off the work visa ban and limited it only to new green cards.


Okay, let’s talk numbers. Each year, the United States admits about 80 million nonimmigrants for temporary purposes, in contrast to about 1 million permanent residents (green card holders). The majority of these nonimmigrants are tourists who stay only for a short visit, along with about 2 million students and their families, half a million people for diplomatic visits, 30,000 or so fiancé(e)s, and a number of other categories.[1]


One of those categories is about 4 million people, about 5% of total nonimmigrant visas, who are admitted to the United States primarily to work.[2]


Trump’s proclamation does not touch these admissions. It only bans new permanent residents without making any changes to nonimmigrant work visas.


In contrast to a temporary work visa, where the primary purpose of the visa is to, well, work, the primary purpose of a green card varies. While some are tied to employment, about two-thirds of new green card holders each year are admitted based on family ties to U.S. citizens or permanent residents. While some of these people do join the workforce, family reunification, not employment, is the primary purpose for receiving these green cards.


In short, if the Trump administration truly is trying to preserve jobs for U.S. citizens, they picked the wrong target.


The exception for relatives of U.S. citizens is more rule than exception. So is the distinction between applicants inside and outside of the United States.

So as to not appear totally heartless, the proclamation has in place an exception for spouses and children (unmarried and under 21) of U.S. citizens. As long as you have one of those two relationships to a U.S. citizen, your application for a green card can still be approved.


Since 1965, the issuance of green cards has been restricted by a preference system. The United States carefully doles out a limited number of green cards each year based on the category of the applicant and the country the applicant is from, which means that only a relatively small number of people can receive green cards each year. In 2018, the number of green cards granted under this system was 617,650.[3]


The big exception to this is “immediate relatives”—spouses, parents, and unmarried children under 21 of U.S. citizens. In that category, there is no limit to the number of green cards that can be granted. In 2018, 478,961 people received green cards as immediate relatives, or nearly 44% of the total number of new permanent residents that year.[4]


If the Trump administration’s argument is to prevent more people from receiving an immigration status that allows them to apply for any job they wish, this exception would not exist. Indeed, at 44% of the annual number of new green card holders, it is barely an exception.


The proclamation also distinguishes between green card applicants outside the United States (banned) and those who apply from inside the United States (not banned). Again, the exception swallows the rule. In 2018, 528,727 people received their green cards while outside the United States, as opposed to the 567,884 who received them in the country—over half.[5]


So with these two large exceptions, how many people is this green card ban actually keeping out? Assuming that 2020 numbers hold steady to 2018 numbers, the United States would be on track to accept about 600,000 new green card holders throughout the year under the preference system. About half apply from outside the country, or 300,000.[6] And remember, this ban is only for 60 days. Spreading out the approvals evenly over the course of the year, this amounts to keeping out 50,000 people over the next two months.


Let’s compare that to the number of people who have filed for unemployment benefits during the pandemic in the United States: twenty-two million. Trump’s solution to protect those 22 million workers is to prevent an extra 50,000 green card holders from joining the workforce while doing nothing about the 4 million people coming in on temporary work visas. The math just doesn’t add up.


Banning new green card holders won’t help the United States economically.

Of course, these logical flaws could cut the other way as well. If drawing the line where the Trump administration did won’t actually help, maybe the solution is to expand restrictions, halt all work visas, and keep even more people out, right? Except this argument is wrong as well.


The state of the economy is deeply troubling right now. The stock market has taken a nosedive, oil prices are going negative, and twenty-two million people and counting are out of work. Government bailouts only help so much, and economic recovery is expected to last years.


But keeping out immigrants is not the solution to preserving jobs or revitalizing our economy. In contrast, studies consistently find that an influx of immigrant labor does not have a negative effect on the host country, and indeed, more frequently has a net positive effect.[7] Immigrants are more likely than U.S. citizens to be entrepreneurs and create jobs, most of which go to U.S. citizens.[8] They own many of the businesses that have been the recent focus of news stories and government stimulus money, including “more than 60 percent of all gas stations, 58 percent of all dry cleaners, 53 percent of all grocery stores, 45 percent of all nail salons, and 38 percent of all restaurants,” and they are overall 20% more likely to own a small business than U.S. citizens.[9]


Wages do not suffer when immigrants join the work force, even among less skilled workers.[10] Immigrants fill jobs in crucial sectors of the economy where U.S. citizens are reluctant to work, such as the agriculture industry; there’s a reason the business community immediately revolted when Trump suggested that we ban temporary workers.


These economic gains hold especially true with permanent residents, who on average have more education and are higher skilled than temporary workers. Higher-skilled immigrants contribute even more to the strength of the economy than lower-skilled immigrants, driving innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship.[11]


As our country works to recovery economically, many businesses will have to adapt and retool to survive in a post-pandemic world. Recruiting diverse teams of employees and leadership has been common business practice for decades to build stronger businesses, because companies recognize that people of different backgrounds and experiences see problems in different ways and create stronger solutions working together.[12] Finding these solutions will be crucial to building back our economy, and immigrants will only help make them stronger.


The distinction between American workers and permanent residents is a false dichotomy.

In his proclamation, Trump draws a sharp line between permanent residents and “Americans,” arguing that his green card ban is to “protect already disadvantaged and unemployed Americans from the threat of competition for scarce jobs from new lawful permanent residents.”[13] But this distinction does not hold up.


Permanent residents are one step away from being U.S. citizens. They live in the United States, raise families here, pay U.S. taxes, gripe about the snow, argue about whether it’s called pop or soda, and are allowed to stay indefinitely. Sure, they can’t vote or serve on a jury. But everything else? Pretty much the same. In other words, although permanent residents aren’t U.S. citizens, they are still Americans.


On a practical level, let’s talk about what banning green card approvals for 60 days means. Getting permanent residency is not an easy process. Even if you are fortunate enough to be eligible for a green card, the process usually takes years. If someone submitted their application today, with current processing times, they would be lucky to have a green card by the end of 2021. So the people who will be denied green cards under this ban are not new applicants who are trying to saunter into the United States to steal jobs during the pandemic. The people who will be denied have waited for years or decades, jumped through all the legal hoops thrown in front of them, paid thousands of dollars in immigration fees, and are so close to the light at the end of the tunnel—these are the people who will have their green cards halted an inch in front of their noses, indefinitely. Why? Why are these people different from the ones who applied just a little bit earlier and happened to receive their green cards before this ban, different from permanent residents who have been living, working, and contributing to the United States for years, different from those who Trump likes to trot out and congratulate at naturalization ceremonies as those who have “worked hard, followed the rules, and upheld our laws”?[14]


They’re not. Except for that Trump says they are and people believe him.


We should have seen this coming.

Of course we should have. This is the next logical step in the othering of immigrants by the Trump administration that we have seen time and time again. They’ve been doing it for the past three years, one calculated move at a time. We’ve seen it in the Muslim ban, in the ending of the DACA program, in the demonization of refugees; now, he draws a new line to otherize permanent residents.


And the terrifying thing about the attack on green card applicants is that it throws into stark relief that their moves are working. Remember, the first iteration of the Muslim ban in January 2017 included lawful permanent residents, too. When people heard that, they flooded into airports in droves to protest, demanding that permanent residents be allowed back into the country. The Trump administration backed off this part of the ban quickly, realizing that turning the American public against green card holders—even if they were Muslim—was too much, too soon. He needed to take it slowly, more gradually, to bide his time.


And it’s working. Now they draw a new line between U.S. citizens and permanent residents, say that they are different, they are dangerous, they hurt us and we don’t want them here—and this time the public follows him. We are the frog, and Trump is the water temperature, and he just turned the heat up one notch higher. Will we notice?


So yes, this green card ban doesn’t make any sense. But of course, the point of this administration’s sweeping immigration upheavals has never to been to make logical sense, or even to be legally sound. It is to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks, to get the emotional outrage and protests out of the way at the get-go, so by the time a policy version actually passes legal muster, the public has been depleted of energy, resources, and attention span, and has moved on to the next news item. The changes come in with a bang, but when they are finally implemented, there is hardly a whimper of protest.


And make no mistake—although this change is branded as temporary, there is little chance of the ban being lifted after the stated 60 days. Trump said it himself: “As we move forward, we’ll examine what additional immigration-related measures should be put in place to protect U.S. workers. We want to protect our U.S. workers, and I think as we move forward, we’ll become more and more protective of them.”[15] Tying this ban to our economic recovery, which will undoubtedly take years, gives him carte blanche to extend it indefinitely, always with the assurance that this is for the good of the American people. And eventually, the headlines will fade away, people will move on with their lives, forget why this is such a bad thing after all, and then, this will be the new normal.


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[1] Office of Immigration Statistics, U.S. Lawful Permanent Residents: 2018, at 4 (2019). [2] Id. [3] See id. [4] Id. [5] Id. at 3. [6] Office of Immigration Statistics, Lawful Permanent Residents 2018 Data Tables, Table 6, https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/lawful-permanent-residents (Dec. 31, 2019). [7] See, e.g., Rachel M. Friedberg & Jennifer Hunt, The Impact of Immigrants on Host Country Wages, Employment and Growth, J. Econ. Persps, Spring 1995, at 23, 42 (“Despite the popular belief that immigrants have a large adverse impact on the wages and employment opportunities of the native-born population, the literature on this question does not provide much support for this conclusion.”). See generally Madeleine Zavodny, Nat’l Found. for Am. Policy, Immigration, Unemployment and Labor Force Participation in the United States (2018). [8] Peter Vandor & Nikolaus Franke, Why Are Immigrants More Entrepreneurial? Harv. Bus. Rev. (Oct. 27, 2016), https://hbr.org/2016/10/why-are-immigrants-more-entrepreneurial; Gihoon Hong & John McLaren, Are Immigrants a Shot in the Arm for the Local Economy? (Nat’l Bureau Econ. Res., Working Paper No. 21123, 2015). [9] Building a More Dynamic Economy: The Benefits of Immigration, Hearing Before the H. Comm. on the Budget, 116th Cong. 2 (2019) (statement of Tom Jawetz, Vice President, Immigration Policy at Center for American Progress). [10] Zavodny, supra note 7; David Card, Comment, The Elusive Search for Negative Wage Impacts of Immigration, 10 J. European Econ. Ass’n 211 (2012); David Card, The Impact of the Mariel Boatlift on the Miami Labor Market (Nat’l Bureau Econ. Res., Working Paper No. 3069, 1989). [11] Pia M. Orrenius & Madeline Zavodny, Immigrants in the U.S. Labor Market 12–16 (Fed. Reserve Bank of Dall., Working Paper No. 1306, 2013). [12] Rocío Lorenzo et al., How Diverse Leadership Teams Boost Innovation, Bos. Consulting Group (Jan. 23, 2018), https://www.bcg.com/en-us/publications/2018/how-diverse-leadership-teams-boost-innovation.aspx. [13] Presidential Proclamation No. 10014, Suspension of Entry of Immigrants Who Present a Risk to the United States Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the 2019 Novel Coronavirus Outbreak, 85 Fed. Reg. 23439 (Apr. 27, 2020). [14] Trump Celebrates New Citizens in Oval Office Ceremony, AP News (Jan. 19, 2019), https://apnews.com/1a52c6f26b1443508ca600eb330ffcab. [15] Nicole Narea, Trump’s Executive Order to Stop Issuing Green Card Temporarily, Explained, Vox (Apr. 23, 2020), https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/4/21/21229286/trump-immigration-ban-executive-order-coronavirus.


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